Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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Israel’s missed opportunities for peace

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israel has squandered so many opportunities for peace that its very identity as a ‘Jewish state’ is in jeopardy.

Monday 29 October 2012

It is 39 years since the 6th October/Yom Kippur war of 1973. After the peace talks in Geneva following the war, Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban, the ever-articulate founding father of Israeli diplomacy, quipped that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

While there is indeed truth in Eban’s famous assertion (which I will explore in my next article), the Israeli fixation on this hypothesis, with its implication that there is no Arab “partner for peace”, and that the situation today is somehow inevitable, clearly overlooks the long annals of opportunities missed by…Israel.

Eban seems to have wilfully turned a blind eye to one glaring example of this lack of engagement which occurred on his watch: Israel’s failure to avert that same all-out war in 1973, shattering the prospects for forging a lasting peace that its victory six years earlier had opened up.

Although that 1967 war ‘officially’ lasted just six days, it in reality continued in various forms for a further six years – until the next war of 1973. This period could have been an important window of opportunity, but the Israeli government, drunk on victory and convinced that it could have its cake and eat it, rejected peace plan after peace plan. Had Israel taken action back then to return the Arab territories conquered in 1967 in accordance with UN Resolution 242 and the Rogers Plan, it could have avoided the drift to the current impasse in which hundreds of thousands of settlers live in occupied territory and millions of Palestinians live unhappily and in segregation under Israeli military rule.

Back to 1967. Those who subscribe to the received Israeli narrative will argue that Israel was dragged quivering into a fight for its very survival in June 1967, the state had no territorial designs at the time, and would have ceded the conquered territories had there been a true partner for peace.

There is no doubt that the Israeli public, exposed to a continuous barrage of bombastic radio broadcasts from Cairo promising to “put an end to the entire Zionist existence”, was terrified in the run up to the war – as those on the ground, including the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, observed. However, the Israeli military establishment, which had been meticulously preparing for just such a confrontation since at least 1956, was confident it could defeat the bellicose Arab paper tiger, whose roar was definitely worse than its bite.

Indeed, I disagree with those who believe that Israel was acting in self-defence. Evidence of this can, for example, be found in how Israel cold-shouldered an Egyptian invitation in 1965 for then Mossad chief Meir Amit to go to Cairo for a clandestine meeting with none other than Abdel-Hakim Amer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s vice-president and confidante who unbeknownst to himself stood on the threshold of infamy with his subsequent mishandling of the 1967 war.

Israeli, pointing to the famous “Three No’s” of the Khartoum Summit of 1967, allege that there was no Arab partner for peace at the time. But this reveals a severe misunderstanding of the changes defeat had brought to Arab politics. For instance, Nasser tried to contain Syrian rejectionism in Khartoum, agreed to the principles of Resolution 242 and signed Egypt up to the Rogers Plan shortly before his death. “Go and speak of… a comprehensive solution to the [Palestinian] problem and a comprehensive peace,” Nasser reportedly told King Hussein of Jordan in Khartoum.

Regardless of whether Israel’s conquest was premeditated or accidental, the fact remains that the appetite to hold on to conquered land has been stronger than the urge to exchange it for peace ever since, despite early warnings of the dire consequences of this for the Zionist enterprise from the likes of Uri Avnery and Amos Oz.

The ultimate irony implicit in such warnings against Israeli intransigence, or perhaps inertia, is the possibility, with the direction things are heading, that Israel may ‘succeed’ where the Arabs have failed: destroying the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state by its own hand, especially with the recent revelation that there are now more Arabs living under Israeli control than Jews.

Moreover, it was not just the sting of comprehensive defeat that was prodding Nasser to pursue a revisionist course.

Although it was Israel which initiated peace overtures with Egypt soon after the 1952 Free Officers coup, it was Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was then prime minister, who sustained and nurtured, along with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the secret channels which eventually led to a blueprint for a peaceful resolution. Nasser had early on showed remarkable restraint in his public pronouncements and admitted in private that eventual peace with Israel was inevitable – but this early willingness to seek out an accommodation fell prey to the pincer movement of Israel’s predatory hawks and Nasser’s disastrous ambition to lead the Arab world by following the loudest and most radical voices on the “Arab street”. Nasser’s clandestine partner for peace, Sharett, was ousted by David Ben-Gurion, also in 1955, who believed this Israeli dove – who, far more than any other Israeli leader, understood his Arab adversaries – was “raising a generation of cowards”.

Ben-Gurion’s fears provide significant insight into a major psychological barrier on the Israeli side. The long history of persecution endured by Jews had not only created a deep and painful trauma, it also helped fuel Israel’s obsession with might and courage as ends in their own right.

But it is not just a question of psychology. Israel’s failure to reach a resolution with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians, has deep ideological roots. The elephant in the room which classical Zionism has ignored or dealt with myopically is the Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl himself seemed to expect the local Arabs would embrace the Zionist newcomers with open arms, because they would bring the gifts of science and progress with them. In the egalitarian, multicultural Utopia Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), an Arab character, Reshid Bey, expresses his gratitude that Jewish immigrants have helped modernise Arab villages and boost the value of Arab property.

Despite his early talk of Jewish-Arab class solidarity, Ben-Gurion was more realistic. “A people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily,” he admitted to colleagues in the Mapai Political Committee in 1938. This could only be addressed, he believed, through a show of strength that would persuade Arabs to submit to Zionist hegemony.

Like Zionist leaders before and after him, including Herzl, Ben-Gurion was also convinced that the support of the great powers, or a great power, was more important than reaching any kind of agreement or accommodation with the local Palestinian population.

That can help explain Israel’s long refusal to recognise or deal with the PLO, despite Egyptian attempts dating back to the 1970s to persuade Israel to enter into talks and despite the Palestinian National Council (PNC) shifting the focus of its national charter away from armed struggle and towards a phased political solution. In fact, Yitzhak Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, expressed his desire to keep the Palestinian question in “the refrigerator” – and by the time he took it out of the fridge, it was perhaps already too late to thaw it as Israel did not possess the willpower to reverse the too many facts on the ground it had established in the meantime.

Even after having reached peace with Egypt and despite the Camp David accords stipulating that “Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the representatives of the Palestinian people should participate in negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects”, Israel still refused to countenance dealing with Arafat and his comrades.

Even after Yasser Arafat had, during the first intifada, persuaded the PNC to recognise Israel’s legitimacy, at least implicitly, and to accept all relevant UN resolutions dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan, Israel still refused to play ball. “The PNC declaration is an additional attempt at disinformation, a jumble of illusions, meant to mislead world public opinion,” was the Israeli cabinet’s harsh verdict of the historic 1988 declaration. But as the faulty Oslo Accords a few years later clearly demonstrated, the PLO’s willingness to recognise Israel was not an illusion but very real.

Israel is repeating a similar series of errors with its refusal to deal with Hamas and its inhumane blockade on Gaza, which is bound to fuel grievances for long years to come and is clearly against Israel’s own self-interest. Even PA president Mahmoud Abbas, one of the architects of the two-state solution, is seen as beyond the pale in many Israeli circles today.

And so the endless, impossible, rhetorical search for a “suitable” partner for peace continues fruitlessly.

Although Eban’s assertion about missed opportunities is the one that has lodged in the Israeli popular psyche, another of his quotes is a far more apt description of Israel and Zionism’s approach to the Palestinians and wider Arab context: “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, we do not seem to have reached this vital juncture in history yet.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 22 October 2012.

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Israel and Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The creation of Israel sparked a revolution in Egypt, and Nasser, the legendary champion of the Arab cause, once sought peace with the Jewish state.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

While Gamal Abdel-Nasser was still officially prime minister, and Muhammad Neguib was the Free Officers’ figurehead president, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect peace negotiations with Israeli premier Moshe Sharett.

Monday marked the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Not the “Tahrir Square” revolution that began last year – that is on 25 January – but the 23 July revolution of 1952. At a recent event I attended in Ramallah to mark the occasion, an Egyptian diplomat said that 2011 was a continuation of 1952.

Though somewhat bizarrely he exalted the “noble” role of the military in both revolutions – the same junta which seized power six decades ago and has clung on to it selfishly ever since – I do agree with him that the two are linked, but in the same paradoxical way that Hosni Mubarak can be described as the “father” of Egypt’s emerging democracy.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake simply to dismiss 1952 as a “coup d’etat”, a purely military plot that lacked popular support or involvement, even if it was indeed spearheaded by the army. A secret cell known as the Association of Free Officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was responding to popular disaffection with the palace, the landed gentry, the British occupation and influence, and stark socio-economic inequalities.

This manifested itself in mass demonstrations throughout the late 1940s, which culminated in the rioting and looting during the mysterious ‘Cairo Fire’ of January 1952, which showed all the signs of being orchestrated but, to this day, nobody knows who was behind it.

In fact, though Egyptians had a reputation, prior to last year and even among themselves, for being apathetic and docile, the past century has seen three revolutions (1919, 1952 and 2011) and a constant stream of smaller scale political dissent and labour action.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Free Officers seemed genuinely committed to democracy and egalitarianism and enjoyed popular support at first, the allure of power, paranoia and their determination to put Egypt on the fast track to development led them to ignore the transitional period they had set themselves, clamp down on freedom and create a new ruling class, first made up of army top brass, and later of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.

Since last year’s protests in Egypt began, panic bells have been sounding in Israel, where pundits have been searching high and low for signs that the Tahrir Square revolution’s claims of being about “bread, freedom and social justice” is just a cunning smokescreen for its true target: the Jewish state. Despite a number of isolated incidents, such as the trashing of the Israeli embassy, and some hardening of rhetoric, Israel has hardly featured, and Egyptian-Israeli relations look likely to continue along the same path: a cold and frosty peace.

But the picture was different in 1952. Though that revolution too was about bread and freedom, Israel played a significant indirect role in shaping its timing and direction. At a time when the Arab world had recently emerged from centuries of Ottoman imperial domination and was looking forward to shaking off European rule, the 1947 UN partition of Palestine was seen as a colonial slap in the face to Arab aspirations of freedom and self-determination, which might explain why the Arabs unwisely rushed into a war for which they were ill-prepared.

The military blamed the crushing defeat of 1948 on the corruption, nepotism and ‘mediocracy’ of King Farouq’s court and the ruling pasha class.

Nasser himself had fought in Palestine in 1948, and his unit was one of the few that had performed well, managing to hold out for four months under siege in Faluja, near Gaza. Nasser saw in Israel’s victory an unflattering reflection of his own country’s weakness and underdevelopment, leading him to the conclusion that the real battle lay at home. “We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were in Egypt,” Nasser later recalled, in his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1955).

Soon after his return to Egypt, Nasser and his comrades began to act concretely towards his vision for regime change. Following the bloodless coup, Nasser’s attempts to steer a more independent course for Egypt quickly elevated him to the status of bogeyman in Britain, France, as well as Israel. Though his negative image has undergone major revision in Europe, in Israel, Nasser was and is still widely regarded as a kind of “Hitler on the Nile”.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Nasser was driven by antisemitism or wished to wipe out the Jews. What motivated him was sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and anti-imperialism. Despite Zionism’s self-image as an anti-colonial movement, Arabs saw it as a manifestation of Western hegemony designed to undermine their independence.

Moreover, contrary to what many Israelis and pro-Nasserist Arabs believe, there is evidence that Nasser was a pragmatist who quickly came to the personal realisation – despite his later fiery rhetoric designed to appeal to the ‘Arab street’ – that Israel was here to stay and that the Arabs would have to reach an accommodation with it eventually.

As early as 1953, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect negotiations with then Israeli premier Moshe Sharett. Even the ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954 – in which Israeli agents carried out  “false flag” sabotage attacks on US and British interests – did not weaken his resolve. Nasser decided not to blame Sharett – who was in fact not aware of the clandestine operation – and between October 1954 and January 1955, the two men worked on a blueprint for Israeli-Egyptian relations, border issues, solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis, Israeli shipping rights and avenues for economic co-operation.

That same month, Nasser wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs: “We do not want to start any conflict. War has no place in the reconstructive policy which we have designed to improve the lot of our people.”

Alarmed at Sharett’s dovish overtures, David Ben-Gurion came out of retirement and replaced him as prime minister in 1955. Almost at once, Israel’s founding father launched a major raid on Gaza, leading to a dangerous escalation of border skirmishes. The following year, Ben-Gurion signed his young country up to the tripartite attack – alongside France and Britain – to punish Nasser for his entirely legal nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Following this, Nasser lost confidence in Israel as a potential peace partner, and the stage was set for the downward spiral to disaster.

In 1967, tensions between Israel, Egypt and Syria reached fever pitch. Nasser, knowing his army was a shambles and under pressure from Arab rivals, hoped to deploy his most potent weapon – a barrage of eloquent, precision bombast – and defeat Israel in the diplomatic battlefield without firing a single shot.

Israel had other ideas and launched what it called a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours. In just six days, Israel not only captured large tracts of Arab territory, but destroyed the pan-Arab secular dream represented by Nasserism.

Despite the famous “Three No’s” of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Nasser counselled caution and diplomacy to the radical Arab camp. He had also come full circle back to his position of the early 1950s, that a negotiated settlement was the only solution.

Shortly before his death in 1970, Nasser agreed to the American-brokered Rogers Plan. Nasser did not appear to hold out much hope, perhaps based on his previous experience, that Israel would accept the plan – which he described as the “last chance” before military action became inevitable.

Who knows what would have happened had Israel accepted the Rogers Plan or the Egyptian overtures of the 1950s, or if an Arab leader of Nasser’s stature and popularity had actually been honest about his convictions and publicly advocated for peace with Israel? Perhaps the 1967 and 1973 wars would not have happened, and may be Israel and Palestine would be living in peace among friendly neighbours.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Haaretz on 23 July 2012.

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